Why is the bunk house in Of Mice and Men important?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The bunkhouse in Of Mice and Men is important because it shows the crude, almost prison-camp-like living conditions of the itinerant working men called bindlestiffs. Steinbeck describes the setting as follows:

The bunkhouse was a long, rectangular building. Inside, the walls were whitewashed and the floor unpainted. In three walls there were small, square windows, and in the fourth, a solid door with a wooden latch. Against the walls were eight bunks, five of them made up with blankets and the other three showing their burlap ticking. Over each bunk there was nailed an apple box with the opening forward so that it made two shelves for the personal belongings of the occupant of the bunk. And these shelves were loaded with little articles, soap and talcum powder, razors and those Western magazines ranch men love to read and scoff at and secretly believe. And there were medicines on the shelves, and little vials, combs, and from nails on the box sides, a few neckties. Near one wall there was a black cast-iron stove, its stovepipe going straight up through the ceiling. In the middle of the room stood a big square table littered with playing cards, and around it were grouped boxes for the players to sit on.

Steinbeck planned to convert his short novel into a stage play, and he wrote the book in such a way that it could be very easily adapted into a script. The opening of the second chapter sounds exactly like the stage directions for a play, as was the author's intention. Steinbeck called his book "a playable novel." It should be noted that everything in the story takes place in a few settings--notably in the bunkhouse, the barn, and at a campsite by the river. George and Lennie do not even have to go to the office to sign in for their jobs; the Boss comes to them in the bunkhouse, which saves having to create another set. Although the story is about men working in the fields with teams of horses, the fields and horses are never shown. The horses are represented by sounds of hooves stamping and harnesses jingling. The men pitching horseshoes are represented by the sound effects of iron striking iron. When Carlson shoots Candy's old dog, the whole event is represented by the sound of a single pistol shot. 

The book was published in 1937, and the play came out in New York that same year. Steinbeck wrote his novelette with the play constantly in mind. Nearly everything happens in the bunkhouse, including the fight between Curley and Lennie. The only other important set is the barn where Lennie kills Curley's wife. A barn would be very easy to represent on a stage. There would be some hay scattered around on the floor and a few bales of hay stacked up near the wings. Crooks' room would not have to be a separate set. The "barn" could be on one side of the stage and Crooks' room on the other. The side where the action was taking place could be lighted and the other hidden in darkness. It must have been a low-budget production. It was an experimental type of play for those days, and the backers would have had no idea whether it would appeal to sophisticated New Yorkers.

Virtually everything in the novelette is determined by the fact that it was intended to be a stage play. That explains why the book is so short. A play could not last for more than a couple of hours, so there is just enough material in the book to make a play of that length. The book is full of dialogue which could be converted unchanged into script format. The only "outdoor" scene is a campsite by a river, which is used at the beginning and the conclusion. This could easily be simulated by a fake campfire lighted by a couple of colored globes, with the stage mostly in darkness.

The bunkhouse is important mainly because it is an "all-purpose" set where all the characters can come and go and where most of the important action and dialogue can be presented. Steinbeck did not write a big, panoramic novel about the lives of homeless farm workers until his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, which covers a large part of America from Oklahoma to California.

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